The First Law of Petropolitics
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The First Law of Petropolitics

If the resource cursedescribes the economic pitfalls that can come from resource riches, then what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman calls the “first law of petropolitics” deals with is the potential political ramifications. Friedman applies the law to “petrolist states,” which he defines as “states that are both dependent on oil production for the bulk of their exports or gross domestic product and have weak institutions or outright authoritarian governments.” Examples of states that meet this criterion include Egypt, Iran, Nigeria, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Venezuela, among others (Friedman, 2006).

Friedman’s proposed law suggests that there is a negative correlation between the “price of oil and pace of freedom,” which “always move in opposite directions in oil-rich petrolist states.” In his framework, the “pace of freedom” means the development of the elements of a democratic government, such as free speech, free press, free and fair elections, an independent judiciary, independent political parties, and general rule of law (Friedman, 2006).

The law of petropolitics seems logical for a number of reasons. As the price of oil rises and money floods into state treasuries, petrolist governments gain the upper hand in their relations with the international community. They are less dependent on maintaining positive diplomatic and trade relationships with other countries because other countries desperately need the natural resources they can provide (Friedman, 2006). Free from such pressures, they can do what they please in the domestic sphere.

The historical record seems to provide strong evidence for Friedman’s law:

Suddenly, regimes such as those in Iran, Nigeria, Russia, and Venezuela are retreating from what once seemed like an unstoppable process of democratization, with elected autocrats in each country using their sudden oil windfalls to ensconce themselves in power, buy up opponents and supporters, and extend their state’s chokehold into the private sector (Friedman, 2006).

The aggressive behavior of petrolist governments is in evidence in all of these countries. In Russia, former president Vladimir Putin renationalized the oil and natural gas sectors, attempted to crack down on the operations of foreign NGOs, exerted control over national media outlets, and otherwise undermined the independence of large segments of the Russian private sector. In Nigeria, the president was accused of using oil dollars to bribe legislators into amending the constitution to grant him a third term in office. Many such worrying developments could be cited. Friedman and others consider this trend a mounting threat to global stability (Friedman, 2006).

On the other hand, in the oil-rich Middle East region, some resource poor states, such as Bahrain, have made great strides toward democratic government. Bahrain was the first state in the Persian Gulf to hold free and fair elections in which women were allowed to vote. It was also the first state in the region to reform its labor laws in accordance with international standards and to sign a free trade agreement with the United States. It was forced to do these things, in Friedman’s opinion, because its oil supplies are already near exhaustion (Friedman, 2006).

To learn more about Friedman’s theory, see Appendix M, “Freedom in Petrolist States.”


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